Monday, October 27, 2008

joining the harvest

Although it was only 7 AM, it was already ninety degrees and Mada’s Town was bustling with activity. Two teenage brothers were fixing large palm branches to build a new roof for their kitchen. Their younger brother was sweeping aimlessly yet somehow productively; and, Yassa, the youngest of the bunch, was standing naked in a blue container splashing water while her older sister, Korpo, scrubbed her backside furiously with lathery soap. I knew this little band of siblings because I knew their mother. I had met their mother 9 months ago. She was a former client of ours and when a visiting journalist from the Carter Foundation asked me if there were any clients that might be willing to talk to her about the counseling process and her progress since her participation in therapy, I thought of their mother instantly. She had gone from severely depressed and functionally debilitated to emotionally stabilized and socially functional with the help of her group and the counselors. She embodied the success story of someone who benefitted from the healing process of a reparative relationship with a therapy group and my sense was she might be willing to talk. Her individual counselor asked her if she would be interested in sharing her story, stressing she had the right to say no and that only she would determine what would be shared with this stranger. The former client contemplated it for about a minute and then said “yes, I‘d like to talk to her.” She later noted she was shocked anyone from America would be interested in her or her journey.

Deddeh, one of the local counselors (who would be playing the role of Loma interpreter), took the former client and the journalist inside the house for some privacy. Once comfortable, she willingly shared her horrific trauma story. She shared her story for two reasons. First, due to therapy, she had been able to “master” her story in such a way that it no longer felt traumatizing to her when she thought about it or told it. The second reason she shared was because she felt empowered by the curiosity of this foreigner and impressed people wanted to know about her and her experience.

I didn’t want to cause any more reason for anxiety so I remained outside. After a while I became bored and decided to join the game of knock foot that was being played by a few of the girls in the shade behind the next hut. Knock foot is a girl’s only game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponent with the other foot. While hoping and kicking out a foot, the participants collectively keep a well known beat with a quick clapping sequence. It’s sort of like rock, paper, scissors but, instead of playing with your hands; you play with your feet. For every kick one player makes, the opposing player tries to kick out in such a way that they beat the play of the other kicker. The winner is determined by the type and placement of the kick. Once the winner is determined she quickly faces a new opponent and so on, or until she is beat.

Although the above description of the game might suggest I know how to the play knock foot well, I have to admit I still have a few lingering questions about the rules of the game. These questions never seem to get answered because all the girls who I ask are busy giggling at the fact that I am trying to play the game in the first place. “Look at that why wo ma, she tryin to play kna fo oh!” was all I could get out of the girls who surrounded me during my last attempt to play while ignoring my questions. Needless to say I keep trying play and didn’t care if I looked silly. I’m a sucker for games and a bit of a competitor so I’m basically always ready and willing to learn just about anything anyone is willing to teach me.

After just three rounds of knock foot beads of sweat start collecting on my forehead and so I decided I better switch the game before I passed out from heat stroke. I started teaching them the one joint clapping game I know put to beat by one very bizarre song I learned as a small child. The song was originally sung by Tom Hanks and his boyhood friend in the movie Big. It goes something like: “Dutch babes go down down baby down down the rollercoaster sweet sweet baby sweet sweet don’t let me go…shimmie shimmie coco pop shimmie shimmie rock…” It’s somewhat of a ridiculous song and when you think about it, it makes very little sense but my brother and I loved it and it has stuck with me ever since.

The reason we loved this song is still unclear to me but during the third or fourth time we watched the movie we decided we needed to know every single word to this song. The only problem was it was such a fast song we couldn’t pick up the lyrics in real time. At first we thought we could keep rewinding the movie and learn it, but as the weekend drew to a close, we realized our BETA movie would be due back at blockbuster the following evening and so we took matters into our own hands and placed our eighties style boom box next too the TV and recorded the song. We then were able to return the movie and play the song we grew to love over and over again until we memorized it in full. Drew memorized it much faster than I. He had and still has an amazing ability to memorize the lyrics of any song he hears and smokes me in every game of music trivia we have ever played.

The strange thing is I had completely forgotten this tiny little childhood experience of mine until, for some unknown reason, I blurted out the song a few months ago while I was hanging out with my little 5 year old twin princes back in Denver. It came to mind crystal clear and I sang it as loudly as I did when I had been sitting on that brown L shaped couch with Drewbers in our living room more than 20 years ago. If any part of me thought it was silly or useless, this part of me was quickly quieted by their excitement about the song. They couldn’t get enough of it and so the song quickly moved from a place in my subconscious to a much more accessible place in my consciousness. After the shift it subsequently infiltrated many interactions I had with small children. In Liberia it has taken on a life of its own as my already speedy American English becomes decipherable to the little kids I share it with but they LOVE it just as much as I did when I was as kid and end up requesting it over and over again. So now I can periodically find myself surrounded by kids in a village I have previolsy visited chanting variations of the song. The last time it sounded something like, “dune dune tabbies by by me toasters…swe swe babies roller coasters…”

It’s pretty fantastic and totally reinforcing to me a woman who has been diagnosed by her local counselors as someone who, “din’t get to pla enough as a small child and loves to laugh too much.”

Shortly after I had failed to learn the true rules to knock foot and the kids had failed to learn the true words to the song I was trying to teach them the journalist and our former client exited the hut and told us we would be going to the farm for harvest. It wasn’t really a discussion it was simply a decision based on the fact that is what the family would have done if we hadn’t been there.

We quickly got in a line and followed one another into the bush on a small trail that only allowed for us to travel one at a time. The two youngest led the way, the mother resolutely followed, Jessie, the journalist was next, then Deddeh (our translator) followed by me. Lonely the dog was also along for the journey as well and resolutely moved from the front to the back of the group in a proactive yet playful manner. I of course adored Lonely and quickly befriended him.

Our trek to the farm took about 25 minutes. At first we were surrounded by thick bush which amounted to huge palm trees and solid forest. After about 5 minutes we hit the pineapple farm which essentially looks like extra large Alice in wonderland versions of pineapple tops sticking out of the ground, separated thoughtfully by the farmer who planted them. Next came a log bridge over a milky brown marsh with a tree branch handle set up for safe passage. Following that came a 5 foot wide lagoon of dirty water that the locals were sure we would reject passing through. But Jessie and I were adventurous. She somehow managed to hold onto tree trunks and pass around the side without losing her clogs while I decided to wade right through the water just like the kids because I had on slippery flip flops and feared slipping and landing on my tush in the mud. Later I somewhat regretted my decision and ruminated about the possibility of picking up some sort of still water worm like the ominous scitizosomicion. The good thing is I look asymptomatic to date.

Approximately 10 minutes later we reached a bush kitchen. The kitchen was surrounded by about 10 children, 3 teenage girls, 5 women, 1 man, a large cement round structure used to make palm oil, 3 charcoal fire pits and baskets full of peas, okra and bitter ball. To the side was a large group of sugarcane resting against a fence. The group welcomed us casually and without ceremony (which was somewhat refreshing) and the women quickly started changing clothes from their regular lappa wraps with t-shirts and matching wraps form their hair some sort of strikingly unmatching yet still beautiful wrap to keep the baby child resting on their back in place. What they changed into was essentially men’s ware – dirty flannel long sleeve shirts and oversized jeans. I rarely see women outside their lappa attire but quickly realized they were changing because the harvest process must be scratchy and they wanted to cover as much skin as possible. Although I don’t really know why I assumed this (aside from my theory that the reason I love Africa so much is because I was African in a former life; more specifically I was a large and powerful African woman with 7 kids with an amazing singing voice), I was right.

In another unceremonious gesture a woman approached me and tied a wicker basket around my waste and placed a small knife in my hand. It was clear that if we were going to go into the fields, we were going to help with the harvest. After another ten minutes of trekking we arrived at a large rice field. The growth was high and surrounded by random stalks of corn. I quickly reflected on my experience in the rice fields of Vietnam and was amazed by how different everything felt and looked. This field grew much higher, was not swampy and appeared less organized than the rice fields I had seen in Vietnam. With that noted, there was still a very clear system of harvest and I needed to pay attention if I was going to earn the respect of these women.

The impressiveness of my surroundings was quickly trumped by the impressiveness of the women’s quick harvesting maneuvers that put my shabby attempts at harvesting to shame. They didn’t seem to mind however and after a few minutes we were engaged in a classic harvesting coup, a well known collective act of survival.

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